Tommy met Jessie on the beach.
He’d been wandering along the shore line, walking on the wet sand because it was easier, and playing keep away with the waves so his shoes wouldn’t get wet. The day was cold and cloudy. He was looking for driftwood to make a fire, but he wasn’t looking all that hard. This part of the beach was sheltered from the big part of the ocean by a sand bar, and for some reason there was a lot of driftwood here. Everything from dry twigs and bark to huge old tree trunks covered with big black splotches that looked like they’d come from a burned out forest about a million years ago. Tommy wanted to climb on top of the biggest ones and see what he could see, but Leon always told him to stay off the logs, it wasn’t safe, just like Leon had told him to walk along the water because the sick wouldn’t go in the water and it was one way to get away from them.
That hadn’t turned out to be true, but Tommy still walked along the water’s edge like Leon told him to even though Leon wasn’t there anymore.
Tommy had just picked up a piece of wood about the size of his forearm when he saw her sitting on top of a huge log near the water’s edge, watching him.
“You’re not supposed to be up there,” he said.
She stuck her tongue out at him. “Says who?”
“A wave could come in and knock you off and drop the log on top of you, and no one would come to help you get it off.”
She shrugged. “So?”
Tommy didn’t have an answer for that, so he shrugged back.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
Tommy told her, and she told him her name was Jessie. Tommy didn’t ask her how old she was, and she didn’t ask him. Nobody really cared about that stuff anymore. Grownups were the only people who wanted to know, and Leon had been the last grownup Tommy had been around who wasn’t sick. The ones who were sick didn’t care about anything other than eating you.
“Do you know how to fish?” she asked.
Tommy shook his head. His grandpa had talked about taking Tommy fishing someday, but he never had. Tommy’s dad didn’t know how to fish. All he knew was how to crunch numbers, whatever that meant. One day he’d gone to work and hadn’t come home. He was in the hospital, Tommy’s mom had said, and she left Tommy with their neighbor Leon. Neither of his parents had ever come back home. Leon told him once it was better that way.
Tommy hadn’t believed him until Leon had to kill his own girlfriend because she’d gotten sick and tried to hurt Tommy. After that, Tommy figured it was better to remember his parents as his parents, not as creepy sick people who wouldn’t even know who he was anymore.
“I know how to fish,” Jessie said. “Want me to teach you?”
Tommy shrugged again. “Sure.” He had nothing better to do.
Jessie had a fishing pole she said she found half-buried underneath one of the logs. She stuck something slimy on the hook and showed him how to fling the hook with that slimy stuff out into the water.
He stood next to her and watched until one of the waves came up higher on the shore than the others. She laughed at him when he backpedaled away from the water.
“Are you afraid of the ocean?” she asked.
“No. I’m just not supposed to get my shoes wet.”
That had been one of Leon’s rules. He’d seen a movie once, he said, where shoes were the next most important thing after food and water. A person had to take care of their shoes if they wanted to survive. According to Leon, wet shoes wore out faster. Tommy didn’t know if that was true or not, but everything else Leon said was.
Well, almost everything.
“Says who?” Jessie asked again.
Tommy shrugged, embarrassed to admit he still followed Leon’s rules even though Leon wasn’t around anymore.
“Look, you can’t fish from so far away from the water,” Jessie said. “Take your shoes off.”
“Isn’t the water cold?”
She wriggled her bare toes in the wet sand. “You get used to it, and then it’s kinda fun.”
Tommy supposed that was true, too. He’d gotten used to a lot of things since the day his parents hadn’t come home.
He took off his shoes and balled up his socks. He tucked the socks inside one shoe and left his shoes in a hollow in the sand by the log where Jessie had been sitting.
The water was cold, but Tommy didn’t mention it. He let Jessie hold his hands on the fishing pole, and let her help him when he flung the hook and the slimy bait out into the water. She made him do it over and over again until she said he did it right.
They caught two fish. She bashed their heads on a rock, and Tommy watched while she cut out the guts and skinned them. He made a fire out of driftwood and dried bark. She poked a stick through pieces of fish and held the stick over the fire, and when she said the fish was done, they both ate.
Tommy hadn’t really liked fish all that much before everyone in the world got sick, but he supposed it tasted okay. Jessie laughed when he asked if he had to watch out for fish bones. She told him the bones were big enough he’d notice, and he did.
That night was the first night in a long time he didn’t go to sleep hungry.
They slept on the beach on the dry sand near a concrete wall a long way away from the water. Tommy kept a blanket in his backpack along with an extra jacket and a rain slicker. Jessie showed him how to use the slicker with pieces of driftwood to make a little shelter against the wall. Tommy huddled under the blanket, his shoes and socks back on his feet, wearing his extra jacket. Jessie had her own blanket and jacket, but when Tommy woke up in the morning, she had curled in next to him, a warm little presence that felt odd but good at the same time.
The next day they fished in the morning and then went exploring. Jessie said she’d been inside an abandoned restaurant at the back of the bay, and it had all sorts of cool things inside. She wanted to show him, she said, and she sounded excited like he always used to when he had something cool to show his mom.
Tommy didn’t want to go inside the restaurant. Leon always told him to stay outside unless he needed to find food, and then go inside buildings only after he knew he had a quick way back out. The longer the sick were sick, the slower they moved. Leon said it was the newly sick they really had to watch out for, and sick people always seemed to hide away inside places like houses and barns and stores and restaurants. Tommy said once that maybe the sick felt safer inside, but Leon said the sick didn’t have enough brains left to know what safe felt like.
They didn’t need to go in the restaurant. They had plenty to eat. Tommy was full, in fact, even though all he’d eaten was fish and he wouldn’t mind eating something else. Pretty soon the blackberries on the bushes near the road would be ripe, and blackberries were almost as sweet as candy. He thought he could live on fish and blackberries for a long time, and he’d never have to see sick people again unless one of them wandered on the beach which probably wouldn’t happen. Not anymore. Tommy hadn’t seek a sick person in a long time. That didn’t mean there weren’t any more sick people left. He figured they were just better at hiding, like he was better at staying away from them.
But Tommy didn’t want Jessie to think he was afraid of going inside the restaurant. It was starting to become important what she thought of him. He liked her laugh and her dark hair, and he wouldn’t mind if she slept next to him every night.
The restaurant had glass doors in the front. They’d been locked at one time, but someone had thrown a big metal garbage can through the glass on one side. Jessie said she’d knocked out the rest of the glass on that side so she wouldn’t hurt herself, and Tommy hunched over so he could squeeze in the door behind her and his backpack wouldn’t get caught on the frame.
It smelled musty and sour in the restaurant, but not like dead things lived inside like some of the places he’d gone into with Leon. Places where the sick hid out, or places where they’d killed other people who came to look for food.
“Are there any bodies in here?” Tommy asked, and he hated that his voice sounded more like hers than his own.
Jessie shook her head. “I guess everybody left, or maybe they quit serving food before everybody got sick and no one ever came back to work. All the food’s gone. I looked back in the kitchen and there’s nothing there except salt and stuff like that.”
“So why are we here?”
She smiled at him. “‘Cause of all this other cool stuff.”
They walked through a second set of doors that had been propped open. Straight ahead, Tommy saw a bunch of tables that looked like picnic tables with bench seats lined up in a row next to tall windows. Anyone eating at those tables could look out over the ocean. Tommy had been looking at the ocean for so many days it wasn’t a big deal anymore, but his mom used to love coming to the beach just to stare at the water. As far as he could remember, his parents had never taken him to eat in this restaurant, but he bet his mom would have liked it no matter what the food tasted like.
Off to the left was a darkened alcove filled with what his dad would have called junk. Strings of beads and little drinking glasses and erasers and pencils and notepads and postcards and sunglasses and t-shirts were stacked on shelves and display racks and strewn across the bare wooden floor.
Jessie took a pink t-shirt off the shelf and handed it to him. The name of the restaurant was printed on the front in neon green. “I think pink’s your color,” she said.
He dropped the shirt like it was poison. “Thanks a lot,” he said, but he smiled. She was smiling at him, and even in the gloom of the restaurant, he could see how pink her cheeks were. She was teasing him, and for some reason, he didn’t mind.
He found another shirt that was dark blue or black, he couldn’t tell. The shirt looked like it would fit him, though, so he shoved it in his backpack along with a pair of sunglasses. Jessie took a pair that looked like giant sunflowers and propped them on her nose, and he laughed at her.
They were having so much fun, they didn’t hear the sick man until he was almost on them.
Tommy had picked up another pair of sunglasses, this pair with glittery stars for frames, and put them on his own nose. The sunglasses were too dark to wear inside, but Tommy had no problem seeing the sudden look of terror that stole Jessie’s smile when she looked over his shoulder.
Tommy dropped to the floor and rolled toward the front door. That was something else Leon had taught him. Don’t stop to think. Just drop and roll and then get to your feet and run. The sick couldn’t bend over to reach you, their bodies were too stiff, and they couldn’t outrun you if you were small and fast.
No one had ever taught Jessie that trick.
She stood rooted to the spot, her silly sunflower sunglasses perched on her nose, and screamed as the man reached for her. He’d been sick for so long that he looked like a shambling skeleton. His skin was rotted and leathery, his eyes dark and mean like hard little marbles. His hand looked like a claw covered with jerky. His clothes were stained and dirty, and he smelled like rotted food left in a refrigerator after the electricity stopped working.
“Run!” Tommy screamed.
She didn’t run, and Tommy realized she couldn’t. She seemed brave all by herself, but maybe she’d never seen a sick person up close before. He didn’t think anyone had been that lucky.
Tommy didn’t have a gun. Leon never had one either. Leon had a bat, a big one, that he said was better because it didn’t make as much noise as guns so it didn’t let any other sick people know you were there, but Tommy hadn’t taken the bat after the sick man came out of the ocean and bit Leon. Tommy had run, and he just kept on running until he couldn’t hear Leon’s screams anymore except inside his head.
Tommy didn’t have anything he could use for a bat except for the display rack with all the postcards. It was taller than he was, but it was the kind of rack that spun around a center pole, and it had metal spokes to hold the cards. Tommy didn’t think it would be all that heavy.
He picked up the rack and used it like a spear. He jabbed at the sick man with the base of the rack, yelling at Jessie to run, screaming at the man to leave them alone, like the sick could understand anything you said to them. The spokes of the rack shuddered each time Tommy hit the sick man. Tommy kept hitting him, over and over, until finally, Jessie snapped out of her trance and she ran toward the front door.
Tommy dropped the rack and turned to follow her, and that’s when his feet slipped on the postcards strewn around the floor.
He fell, and his chin hit the wooden floor so hard his teeth hurt. “Wait!” he called out to Jessie, but she didn’t turn around. Tommy saw her scramble through the opening in the front door and disappear down the boardwalk, and then he felt the sick man pull on his backpack.
Pure terror shot through Tommy. He was going to get bit! He couldn’t roll and get away. He couldn’t do any of the things Leon had taught him. The sick man held on too tight to the backpack. Tommy would have to turn and fight.
That’s what Leon had done, and Leon had lost.
If Leon couldn’t fight them, how could someone as small as Tommy?
Tommy tried to wriggle out of the straps. His head ached and his teeth hurt, and it was hard for him to think, hard for him to get his shoulders to do what he wanted. The straps from his backpack dug into his shoulders, and he felt like he was tied down just like his mom used to tie the legs of the turkey she made for Thanksgiving dinner. Tommy didn’t want to be anyone’s dinner.
Because he couldn’t go forward, he finally tried scooting backward just enough to loosen the straps, and then he shrugged and squirmed, and the straps slid off his shoulders.
The sick man made a guttural noise just like a hungry animal. Why did he have to be hiding here? He’d ruined everything! The sick ruined the entire world. The sick had taken Tommy’s parents and his friend Leon and made his new friend Jessie run away.
In that instant, Tommy felt a rage like he’d never felt in his entire life. Instead of rolling and running away, he turned over on his back. The sick man was bent over him, mouth open wide, dead rotted teeth jutting out of his jaw. Tommy brought his knees up close to his chest and kicked the sick man right in his dead mouth with as much force as he could muster.
The sick man’s head snapped back, and Tommy felt the man’s jaw give way beneath Tommy’s feet. He brought his knees up close to his chest again, and this time when he kicked, he hit the sick man in the knees. He heard the bone snap with a crack just like a dry piece of driftwood.
Tommy didn’t stay to watch the sick man fall to the floor. He finally did what Leon had taught him. He rolled and ran, hauling his backpack along with him by one strap, and he never looked back.
The sick man didn’t follow Tommy out of the restaurant. Tommy ran down the long boardwalk that fronted the restaurant, and he kept right on going when he hit the sand at the end of the boardwalk. He ran along the shore line following Jessie’s footsteps until they disappeared into the ocean in front of the log where he’d first spotted her. She was nowhere in sight, but he knew she’d stopped there. She’d left her sunflower sunglasses on top of the log along with a notepad and pencil she’d taken from the restaurant. The fishing pole was propped up next to the log.
Tommy called for her, but no one answered. He kept calling for her until his voice went hoarse, and then he sat down in the sand.
He wasn’t afraid that the sick man would come for him. The log where Jessie had left her stuff was a long way from the restaurant, and the sick man would have to crawl now. Tommy would be able to run away from him easy.
He stayed sitting in the sand next to the log until the afternoon breeze blew the notepad off the log. The wind made the sheets of notepaper flutter, and that’s when he realized she’d left him a note.
I’m sorry, she wrote. I can’t stay. I think I’m sick too, it’s just taking me longer. I had fun with you. I’m glad you learned how to fish.
She signed the note with X’s and O’s, which made Tommy feel funny and sad and lonelier than he’d been since Leon died.
He remembered how warm she’d felt when she slept next to him, and how pink her cheeks had been. Leon said not every sick person got sick real quick, and not every sick person got sick because they’d been bit.
Jessie must have come here to die. Maybe she used to come here with her parents, and they’d warned her not to sit on the logs, back when it meant something different to be careful. So Jessie came here and sat on a log and hoped the ocean would take her, but it hadn’t. Instead Tommy showed up, and she must have forgotten she was sick because sick people were supposed to tell you if they didn’t look sick yet. That was a rule, Leon said.
The first rule.
Sick people were supposed to tell you they were sick. Because if they didn’t, how were you supposed to know?
How could he trust anyone he met ever again if they didn’t follow the first rule?
Tommy crawled up on the log and sat there for a long time after that. He didn’t know if he was hoping the ocean would take him. He just sat watching the waves, and once he thought he saw a seal on the other side of the bay. That night he made a fire out of driftwood and dry bark, and he ate some of the jerky from the stash in his backpack. He took out the picture of his parents he kept in the zipper pouch inside the backpack and stared at it in the flickering light of the fire. Sometimes he couldn’t remember what his parents looked like without seeing their picture first. He wished he had a picture of Jessie.
For a moment before he woke in the morning, he thought he felt something warm snuggled up next to him in the sand, but he was alone when he opened his eyes.
He folded up his rain slicker and his blanket and stuffed them inside his backpack. He wouldn’t stay here again tonight, but the sky was a brilliant blue and sunlight sparkled golden on the waves. Tommy took off his shoes and socks and rolled up the legs of his jeans to his knees. He left his backpack and his shoes and socks in the hollow next to Jessie’s log, picked up the fishing pole, and stuck a small piece of jerky he’d softened in his mouth on the hook. He managed to fling the hook out into the waves perfect the first time.
As the sun rose in the sky, Tommy flipped the sunflower sunglasses down from the top of his head to his nose. He might look stupid, but who was here to see?
He’d saved the note she’d left him, too. It was folded up neat and safe, and tucked carefully in the zipper pouch next to the picture of his parents.
“I’m glad you taught me to fish, too,” he said.
Someday he might even learn to like the taste.
~ ~ ~
Copyright © 2013 Annie Reed
Cover art copyright 2008 by Ivan Bliznetsov at iStockphoto.com
This story is available for purchase at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo, and Smashwords. This story is also part of Annie’s five-story zombie collection THE PATIENT Z FILES, also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo, and Smashwords.